Democrats overdue for a major course correction

As we approach an Election Day that appears likely to be a GOP landslide, you’re starting to hear a few voices on the left warn that this is a signal that the Democrats are overdue for a major course correction.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent tells his readers something they probably don’t want to hear, that the Democratic argument that electing Republicans jeopardizes democracy itself just doesn’t resonate with swing voters. Former Associated Press Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier puts it even more bluntly: “a party that loses to Trump’s GOP must be fundamentally and culturally flawed.”

I’m pleasantly surprised that, at least so far, we haven’t heard many progressives offering the tired, implausible excuse that Democrats will lose because they were too nice, or too conciliatory towards the opposition. But I suspect that after Tuesday, at least some progressives, who were never big fans of Joe Biden’s paeans to old-school back-slapping bipartisanship to begin with, choose to interpret the election as evidence that Biden’s instinctive desire to work in a bipartisan manner failed. Biden reached out to the other side and look what happened!

The first problem with this interpretation is that Biden turned his bipartisanship on and off like a light switch. Biden did get a decent number of Republican legislators to buy-in on certain pieces of legislation like the infrastructure bill, the gun safety bill, and the burn pits bill. But he also had no problem with major pieces of legislation being passed along party lines, like the “American Rescue Plan,” Inflation Reduction Act, and making sweeping changes through executive order like his $10,000 per person student loan bailout. Also, Biden was perfectly happy to demonize the opposition when he felt the political need to do so, whether it was comparing opponents to George Wallace, Bull Connor, and Jefferson Davis in a speech in Georgia in January, or his Independence Hall speech warning that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” (In the same speech, Biden need to “respect our legitimate political differences.”)

If Democrats get crushed in the midterms, it won’t be because Biden was just too darn nice and conciliatory to the opposition. The biggest reason will be the runaway inflation rate, which was exacerbated by throwing another $1.9 trillion into an already-recovering economy in spring 2021, creating too much money chasing too few goods. In other words, Democrats are in this mess because they got what they wanted… on an almost-entirely party-line vote. (Democratic congressman Jared Golden of Maine can take a bow for warning, “When combined with the over $4 trillion we have already spent battling the coronavirus, borrowing and spending hundreds of billions more in excess of meeting the most urgent needs poses a risk to both our economic recovery and the priorities I would like to work with the Biden Administration to achieve.”)

The second problem is, imagine Biden (or Kamala Harris, or some other future Democrat) renounces bipartisanship as a naïve dream of a bygone era, and pledges to ignore the opposition party, and to ram through the Democratic party’s agenda by any means necessary. Nuke the filibuster, expand the Supreme Court, and make as many sweeping changes by executive order as possible. Biden or some future Democrat could throw down the gauntlet like that, but just how do you think Republicans would react? Just how thrilled will Democratic lawmakers in purple states and districts react? (Admittedly, after the midterms, Democratic lawmakers in purple states and districts may be rarer.) A future Republican president would almost certainly take the same approach – and the backlash to a “I’m the president, checks and balances mean nothing to me, just try and stop me” approach would make a future GOP president much more likely to adopt the same governing mentality.

Democrats and Republicans are stuck with each other, which means we must figure out how to live with each other. Democrats and Republicans have dramatically different policy priorities and agendas. But there are occasional areas of agreement. Both parties are growing more wary of China, both parties worry about the pervasiveness of fentanyl, and Democrats are running as fast as they can from the George Floyd “defund the police” rhetoric. (China, drug smugglers, and criminals: nothing unites people like an outside threat.)

It is likely that every future president is going to replicate some version of Biden’s straddle – expressing a desire for bipartisan unity but enacting big changes through party-line votes when that’s the only way to achieve a long-desired policy goal.

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